Taken from The Twelve Steps to Holiness
St. Alphonsus Liguori,
Doctor of the Church
"Having dismissed the multitude,
He went into a mountain alone to pray."
St. Alphonsus Liguori,
Doctor of the Church
"Having dismissed the multitude,
He went into a mountain alone to pray."
To preserve recollection of spirit or the constant union of the soul with God, three things are necessary: solitude, silence and the recollection of the presence of God. It was these three things which the Angel of God referred to when, addressing St. Arsenius, he said: "Flee, be silent and rest." In other words: seek solitude, practice silence, and rest in God by keeping the thought of His presence ever before you.
Souls that love God feel a strong attraction for solitude, for they know that God converses familiarly with those who shun the noise and distractions of the world. "O blessed solitude," exclaims St. Jerome, "in which God with loving condescension deals familiarly with chosen souls!" God does not speak in those places where time is squandered in loud laughter and idle talk. "The Lord is not in the earthquake" (3 Kgs. 19: 11), but He says, on the contrary, in the words of the prophet Osee: "I will lead her into the wilderness and I will speak to her heart." (Osee 2:14). God speaks to the soul in solitude, and by His words the heart is inflamed with Divine love. "My soul melted when my beloved spoke," said the spouse in the Canticle (5:6).
St. Eucherius relates that a person who desired to be perfect once asked a spiritual director what he had to do, and this was the answer he received: "Solitude is the place where man finds God. In solitude, virtue is easily preserved; in intercourse with the world it is easily lost." St. Bernard tells us that he learned more about God and Divine things in solitude under the oaks and beeches than from the books and schools of the learned. For this reason the Saints felt an irresistible yearning to leave the noise and bustle of the world and retire into solitude; for this reason the mountains and forests and caves were inexpressibly dear to them. In the prophecy of Isaias we read: "The land that was desolate and impassable shall be glad, and the wilderness shall rejoice, and shall flourish like the lily. It shall bud forth and blossom, and shall rejoice with joy and praise: the glory of Libanus is given to it; the beauty of Carmel, and Saron, they shall see the glory of the Lord, and the beauty of our God." (Is. 35:1). In other words, for interior souls, solitude is the source of abundant delights, for it is there they look upon and contemplate the majesty and beauty of God.
THE THOUGHT OF GOD
In order to remain united to God, we must endeavor to keep alive within us a vivid recollection of Him and of the immeasurable goods He bestows on them that love Him. By constant intercourse with the world, these spiritual truths are apt to become obscured in the maze of earthly thoughts and considerations, and piety vanishes from the heart. Worldly-minded people shun solitude, and it is quite natural for them to do so; for it is in retirement that they are troubled with qualms of conscience. They seek the society and excitement of the world so that the voice of conscience may be drowned in the noise that reigns there. Those, on the contrary, whose conscience is at rest, love solitude and retirement; and when at times they are obliged by circumstances to appear in the noisy world, they are ill at ease and feel altogether out of their element.
It is true, man naturally loves the society of his fellow man; but what can be found more beautiful than the society of God? "His conversation hath no bitterness," says Holy Scripture, "and his company no tediousness, but joy and gladness." (Wis. 8:16). A life of solitude is not a life of sadness; it is rather a foretaste of Heaven; it is the beginning of the life of the blessed whose sole happiness is found in the love and praise of God. This is what St. Jerome said when he fled from the society of Rome and hid himself in the grotto of Bethlehem: "Solitude is my Heaven," he wrote. In solitude the Saints seem to be entirely alone, but this is not so. St. Bernard said: "Never am I less alone than when alone"; for when I am alone I am with God, Who gives me greater joy than the society of all creatures could afford. If the Saints seem to be sad, in reality they are not so. Because the world sees them deprived of all earthly joys and pleasures, it regards them as most unhappy; and yet the very opposite is the case.
According to the words of the Apostle, they enjoy a constant and immeasurable peace. (2 Thess. 3:16). Now, in order to find this delightful solitude it is not necessary to withdraw into a desert and live in a cave; you can find it in your home and in the midst of your family. Busy yourself with the outside world only in as far as the duties of your state, obedience, or charity require, and you will be living in that solitude that best accords with your circumstances and that God requires of you. In the midst of the weightiest affairs of state, King David knew how to find a solitude: "Behold I fled away and dwelt in solitude." (Ps. 54:8).
St. Philip Neri for some time entertained the desire to retire into a desert, but the Lord commanded him not to leave the city of Rome, and to live there as if he were in a hermitage.
SOLITUDE OF THE SPIRIT
Hitherto we have spoken of the solitude and retirement of the body; there is also a solitude of the soul, and the latter is more necessary than the former, for St. Gregory says: "Of what use is the solitude of the body without the solitude of the spirit?" Of what benefit is it, the Saint wishes to say, to live in a desert if the soul clings to the things of this earth? "A soul that is free from earthly attachments," says St. Peter Chrysologus, "finds solitude even on the streets and in public places." Of what advantage is it to remain quiet at home or in church if our heart is centered on the things of earth, and the noise of these earthly things prevents us from hearing the voice of God? One day the Lord said to St. Teresa: "Oh, how gladly would I speak to many souls! But the world makes so much noise in their hearts that they cannot hear My voice. Would that they might retire a little from the world!" In what does solitude of the heart consist? It consists in banishing from the heart all desires and inclinations that are not for God, and in performing our actions simply with God's good pleasure in view. The Psalmist expresses this truth in the following words: "What have I in Heaven, and besides Thee what do I desire upon earth? Thou art the God of my heart and the God that is my portion forever." (Ps. 72:25-26). In one word, the solitude of the heart consists in being able to say: "My God, Thee alone do I desire and nothing else."
HOW TO FIND GOD
Many complain that they are unable to find God, but to such St. Teresa replies: "Tear your heart away from everything else; then seek God and you will surely find Him." If a crystal vase is filled with earth, the rays of the sun cannot penetrate it. The light of God cannot illumine a heart that is full of attachments for the joys, the pleasures and the honors of this world. "When thou shalt pray," says Our Lord, "enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret." (Matt. 6:6). In other words, to be united to God in prayer, man must enter into his own heart --- which St. Augustine says is the chamber mentioned by Our Lord --- and shut out all earthly attachments and inclinations. It is not to be supposed that solitude and retirement are synonymous with idleness. Many live in retirement, but it is an inactive and useless retirement of which they shall have to render an account. Devout souls, on the contrary, are like bees that are never tired preparing honey for their cells. No time must be lost, but every moment employed in praying, in reading or in performing the duties of your state of life.
"Idleness is the mother of vice," says the proverb, and the foundation of this proverb is the words of Holy Scripture: "Idleness hath taught much evil." (Ecclus. 33:29). According to St. Bonaventure, the idle man is tortured by a thousand temptations, while the man that is busily occupied has comparatively few. We cannot pray all the time; therefore, we must devote ourselves to work. In the life of St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi it is said that she did more work than four lay sisters together.
It would be an error to suppose that work is injurious to health; on the contrary, it is very conducive to our bodily welfare. Work is moreover an effective remedy against temptations. One day St. Anthony the hermit was assailed by numerous temptations and with a sudden aversion for his solitude; he scarcely knew which way to turn. An Angel appeared and led him into the garden; thereupon he picked up a hoe and began to cultivate the ground. Afterwards he prayed for a while, and then returned to work. From this the Saint learned how he was to act, and the subsequent interchange of prayer and labor made his solitude very agreeable, while at the same time it protected him from many temptations.
But even labor need not prevent us from prayer. One day St. Bernard saw a monk praying while doing his work. "Continue in this way, my brother," said he, "and after death you will have no Purgatory." While our hands are occupied with external occupations, our heart can be fixed on God. The good intention we make in performing our labors sanctifies them in the sight of God and even makes of labor a prayer, for prayer has been called "the raising of the mind and heart to God."
Silence is one of the principal means to attain the spirit of prayer and to fit oneself for uninterrupted intercourse with God. It is hard to find a truly pious person who talks much. But they who have the spirit of prayer love silence, which has deservedly been called a protectress of innocence, a shield against temptations and a fruitful source of prayer. Silence promotes recollection and awakens good thoughts in the heart. According to St. Bernard, it forces the soul, as it were, to think of God and heavenly things. For this reason the Saints of God were great lovers ot Silence. In the prophecy of Isaias we read: "The work of justice shall be peace, and the service of justice quietness, and security forever." (Is. 32:17). On the one hand, silence preserves us from many sins by removing the occasion of uncharitable talk, rancor and curiosity; on the other it aids us in the attainment of many virtues. For example: What an excellent opportunity we have for the practice of humility by modestly keeping silence while others speak! How well we may practice mortification by refraining from relating something we very much desire to tell! What a splendid chance to exercise meekness by not replying to unjust accusations and insults!
Unrestrained and immoderate talking, on the other hand, has many disastrous consequences. If devotion is preserved by silence, it is certainly lost by much talking. A person may be ever so recollected at meditation; if afterwards he does not restrain his tongue, he will be as distracted as if he had made no meditation at all.
If you open the doors of a furnace, the heat will escape. "Guard against much talking," says St. Dorotheus, "for it puts to flight devout thoughts and recollection in God." It is certain that a person who talks much with creatures, will converse little with God, and on His part God will speak little to such a one, for He says: "I will lead her into the wilderness and will speak to her heart." (Osee 2:14). "In the multitude of words," says the Holy Ghost, "there shall not want sin, but he that refraineth his lips is most wise." (Prov. 10:19). St. James says that "the tongue is a world of iniquity" (James 3:6), for as a learned author remarks, very many sins are occasioned by talking or listening to the talk of others.
Ah, how many souls will be lost on judgment day because they have not watched over their tongue! "The man full of tongue," says the Psalmist, "shall wander about without a guide" (Ps. 139), and go into a thousand and one byways with no hope of returning. "He that keepeth his mouth, keepeth his soul," says the Wise Man, "but he that hath no guard on his speech shall meet with evils." (Prov. 13:3). And St. James writes: "If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man." (James 3:2).
For he who for the love of God keeps silence will likewise be given to meditation, spiritual reading and prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. It is impossible, says St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi, for one who does not love silence to take pleasure in Divine things; before long he will throw himself into the very midst of the pleasures of the world.
THE VALUE OF SILENCE
The virtue of silence does not consist in never speaking, but in keeping silent when there is no good reason to speak. Solomon says: "There is a time to keep silence and a time to speak." (Eccles. 3:7). In reference to these words, St. Gregory of Nyssa remarks: "The time to keep silence is mentioned first, because by silence we learn the art of speaking well." When therefore should a Christian, who desires to become holy, be silent, and when should he speak? He should be silent when it is not necessary to speak and he should speak when necessity or charity requires it. St. Chrysostom gives the following rule: "Speak only when it is more useful to speak than to be silent."
St. Arsenius acknowledges that he often regretted having spoken, but never, having kept silence. St. Ephrem says: "Speak much with God but little with men." If in your presence unbecoming and sinful language is used, leave the company if it is possible to do so. At least cast down your eyes and remain silent, or lead the conversation to some other topic, thus making a silent protest against such unsavory talk. Be not over eager to hear the news; curiosity leads to many faults. The Abbot John used to say: "He who would hold his tongue in check, must close his ears by suppressing the desire to hear the news." And when you do speak, weigh well what you intend to say. "Put your words in the balance," says the Holy Ghost. (Ecclus. 28:29). St. Francis de Sales quaintly remarked: "To avoid faults in speech we must have the lips buttoned together, so that while unbuttoning them we may think of what we are going to say."
THE PRESENCE OF GOD
A powerful aid in preserving recollection is the remembrance of the presence of God. Not only does it conduce to recollection of spirit, but it is also one of the most effective means of advancing in the spiritual life; it helps us to avoid sin; it spurs us on in the practice of virtue, and it brings about an intimate union of the soul with God.
There is no more excellent means of quieting the passions and of resisting the temptation to sin than the thought of the presence of God. St. Thomas says: "If we thought of the presence of God at all times we would never, or very seldom, do anything to displease Him." According to St. Jerome, the recollection of God's presence closes the door on all sins. For, if in the presence of our rulers, our parents or superiors, we do not care to transgress their commands, how could we violate the commandments of God if we remembered that His eyes were upon us? St. Ambrose tells us that during a sacrifice which Alexander the Great was offering in the temple, a certain page who held a lighted torch allowed it to burn his hand rather than be guilty of irreverence by letting it fall. And the holy doctor adds: If respect for the presence of the king could overcome the impulse of nature itself in this boy, how much more ought not the thought of the presence of God to prevail with a faithful soul in overcoming temptations and in suffering every imaginable torture rather than offend God before His very eyes.
Men fall into sin because they lose sight of the presence of God. "The cause of all evil," says St. Teresa," lies in the fact that we do not think of the presence of God, but imagine Him far away from us." A man who loses sight of the presence of God will easily become a prey to sinful and sensual desires and have no strength to resist them.
On the other hand, by the thought of God's ever vigilant eye upon them, the Saints have had strength to resist and overcome all the attacks of the evil one. It was this thought that gave the chaste Susanna courage to spurn the wicked advances of the men who tried to seduce her and even threatened her with death. "It is better for me," she said, "to fall into your hands without doing evil, than to sin in the sight of the Lord." (Dan. 13:23). The same thought converted a wicked woman who dared to tempt St. Ephrem to sin. The Saint replied that if she wished to sin, she would have to go with him into the public square. "But," she inquired, "how is it possible to commit sin in the presence of so many people?" "And how is it possible," rejoined the Saint, "to commit sin in the presence of God, Who sees us everywhere?" At these words the poor sinner broke out into tears, threw herself at his feet and begged the Saint's pardon, beseeching him to lead her into the way of salvation. The Saint secured her admission into a convent, where she led an edifying life and bewailed her sins to her dying day.
Something similar is narrated in the life of the Abbot Paphnutius. A certain sinful woman named Thais thought she might induce him to do wrong by saying that no one but God would be a witness to the deed. The Saint replied in a very earnest tone: "You believe, then, that God really sees you, and nevertheless you wish to sin?" These words made such an impression on her that she began to conceive a horror of her wicked life. She brought all the jewels and clothing she had secured by a life of sin, heaped them together in the public marketplace, and set them on fire. Then she entered a convent and fasted for three years on bread and water, constantly repeating the following words: "Thou Who hast created me, have mercy on me." At the end of three years she died a holy death. It was shortly after revealed to a disciple of the Abbot Anthony that the happy penitent had merited a crown of glory among the Saints. Therefore St. Chrysostom says: "If we keep ourselves in the presence of God we shall neither think nor say nor do what is wrong, convinced as we are that God is the witness of all our thoughts and words and actions."
A GREAT INCENTIVE
As far as the practice of the Christian virtues is concerned, the recollection of God's presence affords us a powerful stimulus. How bravely will not soldiers fight in the presence of their general! The thought that his eyes are upon them, and that he will either reward or punish them, animates their courage and strength in a high degree. If we, too, would bear in mind that in all us to admire the wisdom and beauty and sanctity of God and return Him thanks for permitting His creatures to share in His holy attributes.
The most perfect method, however, of keeping alive the thought of God's presence consists in beholding God within our very selves. It is not necessary to ascend to Heaven to find the Lord God; we need only to recollect ourselves, and we shall find Him within us. He who, at prayer, pictures the Lord at a great distance from him is preparing for himself a source of abundant distractions. St. Teresa says: "I never really knew what it meant to pray well until the Lord Himself taught me the proper way to converse with Him. I entered within my very self and found this practice exceedingly profitable for my soul."
God is within us in a different manner from what He is in other creatures; in us He dwells as the Lord in His temple and in His house. "Know you not," says St. Paul, "that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" (1 Cor. 3:16). And our Divine Saviour Himself has said: "If anyone love Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him." (John 14:23). Endeavor, therefore, to reanimate your faith in this consoling truth. Humble yourself profoundly before so exalted a Majesty Who deigns to dwell within you. Excite yourself to frequent acts of confidence, of oblation and of love towards the boundless goodness of God. St. Catherine of Siena tells us that she built a little cell in the innermost part of her soul; there she entertained herself in loving converse with her God. Once, when speaking of this presence of God in our heart, St. Teresa said: "Those who withdraw into the little heaven of their soul, where He Who created them is enthroned, can be certain that in a brief space of time they will have advanced far on the road to perfection."
The happiness of the elect in Heaven consists in seeing and loving God. Our happiness here on earth must likewise consist in loving and seeing Our Lord, not indeed face to face as the Saints and Angels do, but by means of the light of faith. Thus we begin in this valley of tears, this earthly exile, the life of the blessed in Heaven, a life of endless joy in the fruition of the vision of God.